Jess looked at her daughter over her shoulder as she drained the noodles. “What else do you need to start this project?”
“Art tape, the big kind. Lots of it. Did you know that in Philadelphia somebody made a one-hundred-twenty-eight-foot cocoon out of translucent tape? Twenty-one miles of it! You can climb in it and everything.”
“Wow.” Jess pulled down plates and brought them to the counter.
“I also need glue and regular tape and construction paper to make the people.” She pointed to Jess’s iPad on the table. “Can I look it up?”
“May I,” Jess said reflexively, and dished noodles onto the plate, topping them with sauce.
Juno picked up Pigeon from the chair, lifted the iPad to wake it up.
“How was school today?” Jess asked, turning just as an image loaded on the screen.
A picture of her and River.
The cover of the Union-Tribune she’d been looking at this morning. Fuuuu—
“Mom!” Juno yelled. “That’s you and River Nicolas!”
Was it possible to lose all the blood in one’s body without actually bleeding?
“Is he your boyfriend?”
How was Jess supposed to answer that? That she was only pretending with River because they were paying her? That they were friends who just happened to be photographed wrapped up in each other’s clothes? How was it that she tried so hard to protect Juno, but consistently screwed everything up?
She set down their dinner with shaking hands. “That’s …” Jess searched for words, panicked, sweating, spiraling. “We were—”
I am not my mom. I am not putting Juno last. I can explain.
Before Jess could speak, though, Juno tilted her head. “You look pretty with your hair like that.” And then, just as quickly, her attention was drawn to her plate. “Ooh, spaghetti!” She took a humongous bite, eyes closed as she chewed.
Stunned, Jess could only stare as Juno tilted her glass to her face and set it down, leaving a bright moon of milk over her top lip. She grinned winningly at her mother. “Can I order tape after dinner?”
“Yes, as much tape as you want,” Jess said.
“Okay!” Juno swirled more noodles onto her fork. “Can I get different colors? Like blue and orange and green and red?” She took another giant bite, and Jess moved back to the kitchen.
She opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle of wine. “Sure,” she told her, and poured herself a drink. Pink? Purple? Polka dot? Knock yourself out, kid. Jess had never had the luxury of being frivolous before; it felt strange but also wonderful. She watched Juno finish her dinner and pull out the iPad again, humming as she added art supplies to her cart.
Whoever said money couldn’t buy happiness had never seen this.
BY BRANDON’S RAVING account, Trevor and Caroline Gruber were completely lovely people. Yes, they were GeneticAlly investors, and yes, after that Union-Tribune profile they wanted to host a cocktail hour to meet Jess along with some of the other major donors, but They’re unpretentious, Jess, Brandon had insisted. You’ll love them.
Trevor was some sort of tech genius from Detroit, and Caroline was a pediatric orthopedist from Rhode Island. Worlds colliding, true love, all of that.
That they’d chosen to give a cool few million to a company whose goal was to match people up with their soulmates gave Jess hope they and their guests wouldn’t all look like the Monopoly man. There were a thousand good investments in this booming biotech area, but as someone who manipulated data and helped companies evaluate risk, even Jess couldn’t say for sure that, under different circumstances, she’d choose to give money to GeneticAlly.
That said, one look at River when he picked her up out in front of her building, and she would happily throw her wallet and banking passwords at whoever was asking. He was in a tailored navy suit. Polished shoes. Perfect almost-too-long hair, bright eyes. The Adam’s apple she’d thought of licking more than once since the Shelter Island interview a week ago. Brandon had talked her off a ledge earlier, insisting GeneticAlly would spring for her dress and send someone to do her hair and makeup. A thoughtful and generous gesture, it had mainly served to highlight that the event was Very Fucking Important, which sent Jess deep-breathing into a paper bag.
And just when she’d convinced herself she was both socially adept and attractive enough to handle being on Dr. River Peña’s arm all night, he stepped out of his car looking like solid muscle and sexual energy poured by a fancy German-engineered machine into that suit.
Jess took a flying leap off a mental bridge. She was so completely screwed. She’d lowered the drawbridge to sex thoughts and now they were stampeding across. Frankly, if she and River ever managed to get it on, he was going to have a lot to live up to. Fictional River was a wonder in bed.
He bent and kissed her cheek again—this time she was at least prepared for it, but she was not prepared for the assault of sensation. He smelled … different.
He did a similar deep inhale near her ear.
They spoke in unison:
“Are you wearing perfume?”
“Are you wearing cologne?”
Her question echoed last, and louder. Is he blushing?
“A little. My sisters—” He cleared his throat. “They told me to go to Neiman Marcus, get some recommendations.”
Jess pulled out a mental bag of arrows and took aim at the imagined saleswoman who’d dabbed his skin with various colognes and gotten close enough to smell him. “Your sisters told you to get … cologne?”
“They’re invested. In this.” He sighed, but she knew he was only pretending to be exasperated.
His sisters were invested in them? Was that adorable or terrifying? “That’s very sweet,” Jess managed.
River laughed dryly. “That’s one word for it.”
“Well, the cologne is nice.” Understatement of the ages. Jess wanted to eat him up and wash him down with the rest of the bottle.
He leaned in again. “What is it I’m smelling?”
Jess was thrown for a moment when she registered that they were smelling each other. And recognizing a difference. Was this normal? Was this weird? She decided to roll with it.
“It’s—okay, it sounds weird, but it’s grapefruit. It’s a grapefruit roll thing—” She didn’t know how to say it. “It’s not perfume, exactly. Like an oil? It’s a little roller—” Jess shut up and just mimed rolling something on her wrist. “Perfume gives me a headache, but this”—she felt the tops of her cheeks flame—“this I can do.”
“I like it.” He seemed to struggle for words. “A lot.”
What was she hearing in his voice? Weird tight restraint. It sounded like he was telling a platter of buttery beef Wellington, I could stand to take a bite, when really he meant, Get in my face.
Did River Peña … want her in his face?
Jess had to take it down a notch. She might have been consistently obsessing since their Shelter Island snuggle, but she could make no assumptions about where he was with all of this.
Also, as they climbed into his car, Jess reminded herself that they would soon be standing inside an investor’s penthouse for a cocktail party. That is, River—and everyone there tonight—had a financial interest in her looking at him with horny eyes. Jess knew already that River chose his words carefully; for all she knew, his sisters might be actually invested, not just sentimental and meddling. Her obvious attraction to him helped boost confidence in his company, which helped his pocketbook, and also helped confirm everything he’d been saying from a scientific standpoint all this time. Jess knew how important it was to River that the world saw the impact of his data.